Adam One as Paradigm for Communal Spiritual Leadership by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 30, 2015


Synagogue rabbis today are teachers, administrators, and pastors.  They give sermons, raise money, teach classes, facilitate Jewish lifecycle events, answer halakhic questions, coordinate meetings, occasionally change lightbulbs, absorb the anger and anxiety of individuals for the sake of the community’s greater health, assist Bar and Bat Mitzvah children with their drashot, comfort the mourner, support the orphan, the widow and the needy, give musar when it is required, and aid in facilitating conversations of leadership, planning, and diplomacy.  None of these are forbidden to women and in some of these roles, women may, in fact, be more adept.


The word “ordination,” when used for women in Orthodoxy, feels unorthodox.  Not because there is a halachic problem with the ordination of women.  In fact, the title of ordination today has few, if no, halachic repercussions. Today semicha, or ordination, is a degree.  It means one has studied certain sections of Jewish law and knows how to apply them.

During the post World War I era, Sarah Schenirer, a Polish seamstress with a passion for Jewish tradition, developed the first school system for Orthodox girls in history. By the eve of World War II, the network encompassed over two hundred and fifty schools with more than forty thousand pupils, primarily in Eastern Europe. Pictured here is the second graduating class of the Bais Ya’akov in Lodz, Poland, in 1934. Institution: Yehudis Bobker, Sydney, Australia

My discomfort with Orthodox women receiving the title Rabbi is that it feels like a blurring of the lines, differences between genders.  In Orthodox life, especially within the realm of prayer and mitzvot, gender lines are real and differences between male and female palpable.  The Torah itself certainly is interested in the differences between male and female as evidenced by the first chapter of Genesis.  Male and female in that first chapter, as Rabbi Soloveitchik points out, are created side by side as equals, made together in the image of God and together commanded to populate and subdue the world.  According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, this first chapter is not overshadowed by the second chapter in which Hava is created from Adam but independently stands as its own human paradigm.  Read the rest of this entry »

Different Roles-by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 29, 2014

I came across THIS ARTICLE by Rabbi Avi Shafran, my old 10th grade Rebbe.  There is a lot he writes in the public arena that I do not agree with, but this one I really did.  I articulated a similar notion in my post in this blog about Maharats HERE.  Indeed when our Maharat here at Bais Abraham asked me if she was expected to go to the weekday Schacharit minyan, I told her that of course she could but it was not expected, and perhaps she would like praying at home better and spending the time with her young children or learning.  


Men and women have different halachic obligations and as Orthodox Jews we believe that men and women are different.  Because the genders bring very different voices and points of view to the table is precisely why we must empower women to be Jewish leaders, to be learned, but we must take care not to push them to be the same as men.  This could send  observant Judaism down a dangerous path of erasing the distinctions between the genders, much as has happened in some more liberal Jewish movements.  Ultimately such a path does not honor women and their leadership, their power, and uniqueness nor does it honor men’s, but rather takes something precious away and creates fewer opportunities for both genders to bring their strengths to the community.  

Rabbi Lopatin clarifies his respect for Rav Shai Held

May 7, 2010


As an addendum for more comments regarding Rav Schachter’s shiur at the RCA, I wanted to clarify a few things:

1)      I have tremendous respect and admiration for Rabbi Shai Held who wrote the critique of Rav Schacter, at least in terms of “chidush”.  Rabbi Held is a talmid chacham and already an accomplished Jewish thinker and liturgist.  I have used his liturgy on the Tsunami disaster in my shul!  So any rejoinder I have to his critique is said timidly and humbly.  I apologize that I may not have come off sounding this way in my zeal to defend the “chidush” nature of Orthodoxy.  I look forward to continuing discussions and debates with Rav Held in the future.

2)      Rav Schachter himself, in this same shiur at the RCA conference, allowed for disagreement with his points.  Rav Schechter emphasized how any halachic authority could disagree with another halachic authority, from an earlier time or contemporary, and therefore, I felt exhilarated after his speech as it legitimized my decision to  follow halachic authorities – in the Orthodox world –  who disagree with his stance on the ordination of women to the rabbinate.  Every posek (halachic decisor) must rule what his or her understanding, and every individual must honestly chose which decisor they follow: there will be disagreements, but no one is bound by anyone else’s truth.  If the Gaon from Vilna could disagree with the Gaonim 1000 years before his time, we can certainly feel OK in ruling according to a contemporary posek – or poskim – who disagrees with Rav Schachter.

3)      Thus, I do not think that there is any halachic prohibition on ordaining women as rabbis, and while the time may not be right in Orthodoxy at the moment for this practice, I look forward to the time when it will be appropriate.  In the meantime, within Orthodoxy, I hope to see more and more shuls with full time women in the clergy, and I hope there Yeshivat Maharat, and the programs which confer other titles to women, such as Yoatzot Halacha, will continue to grow and thrive.  I hope that Orthodox leaders step up to the plate to fund those programs and those positions.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Maha – right

June 3, 2009

Los Angeles is a continent away from Sara Hurwitz’ controversial ordination as MaHaRaT by Rabbi Avi Weiss. As a result, almost no one here in the West seems to yet know or care. Perhaps the only advantage of living in this parallel Modern Orthodox universe is that it affords one the possibility of viewing this event, along with the discussions it has generated from, well, a distance. And from a distance, it appears to me that much of the discussion that this event has generated – discussion about the propriety of ordaining women – is actually missing the mark. I see Sara Hurwitz’ quasi-semicha as indeed sparking several important discussions, but none of them about women and ordination  per se.


Chief among the discussions that seems to largely miss the point, is the “halachik discussion”, i.e. the discussion as to whether there is a halachik barrier to a woman serving as a rabbi. To folks who have served in the congregational rabbinate, the question seems almost nonsensical. I have been blessed to serve as a congregational rabbi for the last 19 years.  The sections of  Shulchan Aruch that have governed my work are entirely egalitarian. The laws of visiting the sick and of comforting the mourner, the laws of rebuking people without publicly embarrassing them, and the laws of tzedaka and proper treatment of synagogue employees are not gender-sensitive. The Torah that God has merited me to teach has been drawn exclusively from texts that Modern Orthodox Jews believe are open to everyone regardless of gender. Ninety percent of the answers that I have given to questions of practical halacha have come straight out of the standard halachik literature, and the other ten percent  – questions that I felt truly needed adjudication –  I submitted to people who are formally authorized to render decisions. The laws of Helping Jews Work Together On Committees are not halachikly codified at all. The question as to whether a woman may be appointed to a position of srara (of authority over a community) has been effectively addressed through the halachik recognition that any leader who is freely elected by (and can be fired by) a community, and whose authority is shared with lay-leadership, is not in fact exercising srara.


What are the important discussions that ought be raised by Sara Hurwitz’ ordination? I’d propose there are three:


(1)   Are we as committed as we should be to having the best leaders that we can have?

The American Orthodox community, now as always, is in need of creative, visionary, dedicated rabbinic leadership. (The looming day school crisis underscores this need well.)  Arguably, we have been facing our challenges in recent years with much of one hand tied behind our backs, as half of our population (the female half) has not been encouraged or been given the necessary training to provide the sort of  broadly-impacting religious leadership that is invested in the rabbinate. The discussion we ought be having is not about “can women be rabbis?”, rather “are we serious about having the best possible religious leadership?”  Assuming that we are, I propose that we ought be opening the rabbinate to women not to address feminist concerns, but in order to have the best chance at producing the rabbinic leaders that we need.  This isn’t a “women’s issue”. It’s a leadership training issue.


(2)   Are we prepared to correct a fundamental illogic in our approach to Talmud Torah?

Opening the Orthodox rabbinate to women is also about fixing a glaring inconsistency in our educational philosophy. We are today ideologically committed to the proposition that Talmud Torah is an equal-opportunity value, and that all Jewish people should pursue the study of whatever area of Torah they desire. This obviously includes the kind of intensive study of practical halacha that characterizes a semicha curriculum. We already confer degrees on men or women who have completed courses of study in TaNaCH, Jewish philosophy, or even Talmud. But for reasons more social/political than logical or fair we won’t do so for Jews who have completed the requisite study of practical halacha, when those Jews lack a “y” chromosome. This arbitrary discriminatory practice reflects poorly on us, and for the sake of our communal integrity and the uprightness of our educational system needs to be addressees one way or another.  


(3)   Recognizing Sara Hurwitz’ ordination not as a revolution but as a challenge

A third meaningful discussion that we ought to have is about the twin realities that over the last decades we have created a community in which Orthodox women have become more deeply educated, have taken some leadership roles in educational and communal settings (and for that matter in rabbinic settings as well in several instances though usually without a title), and that our community has changed for the better as a result. Our schools have become infinitely more creative, our homes are religiously much deeper, and our communal stands against sexual abuse and recalcitrant husbands more robust. And these are but a few of the positive changes that have resulted. MaHaRaT Hurwitz’ ordination should not be characterized as – and in fact isn’t! –  a challenge to our traditional ways. It is rather a challenge to us to keep striving for new and better ways to make our community better, wiser, and holier through opening opportunities for all Jews, men and women alike.